Accessibility links

Breaking News

Disabled Georgian Adoptee Now A U.S. Paralympic Star

American bronze medalist Elizabeth Stone (right) joins Spanish silver medalist Sarai Gascon (left) and South African gold medalist Natalie du Toit on the podium after the women's 100-meter backstroke finals in London on August 31.
It is August 31, and the 2012 Paralympic Games are well under way. Tension is mounting before the final in the women's 100-meter backstroke event.

Elizabeth Stone of the United States, in a wheelchair, enters the pool area to the cheers of the expectant crowd. She has her headphones on and her black swimming cap is pulled tightly over her head. Her dark eyes soon fix their gaze on the lane of water in front of her -- the distance between her and the success she has worked toward for years.

Stone, 22, captures the bronze medal with a time of 1 minute and 12 seconds.

At the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing she did ever better, taking home silver. Both times she did so without the bottom half of her right leg.

But Stone's record of overcoming adversity began well before her swimming career, as she started life in a small Georgian orphanage during the final, exhausted days of the Soviet Union. She is, in fact, one of a crop of successful U.S. paralympians who began their journey as adoptees from the former U.S.S.R.

Given Up At Birth

Speaking to RFE/RL from the Olympic village, the young woman who was born Ketevan Amberkievna Xurcidze says the experience set her on a path to become the fighter she is.

"From birth I lived in an orphanage in Kutaisi," Stone says. "I don't remember all that much, but I do remember a little bit of the orphanage -- or lack of what was there, I should say, just because it was very poor. I remember the bathroom -- just a room with a red bucket."

Stone believes strongly that her rare condition, known as proximal femoral focal deficiency, which left her right leg about half the length of her left, was the reason why her Georgian parents gave her up at birth in 1990.

"It was still a communist country and at the time I think it was frowned upon to have a child with a disability," Stone says. "Also, maybe they understood the kind of medical needs I would have and the costs."

With the political and social upheaval that the fall of the Soviet Union would usher in, Stone's future was anything but certain.

'She Looked Like A Fighter'

Linda Stone, a physical therapist from the U.S. state of Michigan, had been looking to adopt a child with special needs. Her case manager put her in touch with the orphanage in Kutaisi, which sent photos of the children in their care.

"In the pictures [the orphanage] sent, the other four girls had cute little bows in their hair, but they looked totally passive," Stone said in a July interview with a U.S. prosthetics website. "Elizabeth was screaming her head off. She looked like a fighter."

Elizabeth Stone shows off some of her hardware at the Olympic Park Aquatics Center in London.
Elizabeth Stone shows off some of her hardware at the Olympic Park Aquatics Center in London.
At the age of 4, within a month of arriving in the United States, Stone was fitted with her first prosthetic limb. It soon took on a Georgian nickname -- sort of.

"I spoke Georgian when I first came to the [United] States," she says, adding that after she got her prosthesis, "I was always saying 'p'ekhi,' which is the Georgian word for 'leg.' There was a little bit of a language barrier between me and my mom, and so it turned into 'Becky.' Still to this day I refer to my leg as 'Becky.'"

But Stone leaves "Becky" on the sidelines when she swims, which explains her wheelchair entrance to the pool area in London before a race.

'Haven't Looked Back'

She has done so ever since her first swim meet -- against able-bodied athletes -- which remains fresh in her mind as she competes on the world stage.

"I [finished] second-to-last," she recalls, "but I still beat someone -- and apparently, me beating one person was enough of a spark. Since then I haven't looked back."

Stone says the medical attention she has received in the United States and the resources available for disabled athletes have been indispensable.

Her years of six-day training weeks have paid dividends in London, as she has also collected a second bronze medal in the 100-meter butterfly.

One day, she says, she will visit Georgia and perhaps even try to find her birth parents.

Podium Peers

Stone isn't the only Paralympic athlete from the former Soviet Union to have been adopted by a U.S. family.

In fact, fellow swimmer Jessica Long, 20, is perhaps the most storied athlete representing the United States in London this year. A double amputee, she was born Tatiana Kirillova and adopted at 13 months of age from an orphanage in Irkutsk, Russia. She has won four gold medals at this year's games, bringing her career Paralympics medal tally to 15.

And St. Petersburg-born Tatyana McFadden has taken home golds in track and field.

One of the swimming stars of the 2004 Athens Games was Mikhaila Rutherford, whose birth mother fled the Chornobyl exclusion zone before giving her daughter up for adoption in Minsk.

This year's Paralympics ends on September 9.

With contribution from RFE/RL's Russian Service